It began in elementary school. I was a child who loved to learn, who was curious to understand everything and anything I could. I had read all of The Little Midrash Says books and could quote them verbatim- and often did. I didn’t realize that my pride in my knowledge irked my classmates, that the fact that I always had my hand up before the teacher had even finished the question bothered them. Was I showing off? No, that was not what I intended. I was so thrilled by the answer, so excited about what we were learning that I always wanted to share my knowledge, certain that everyone also wanted to learn and wanted to hear the answer. But after a while, when the teacher would inevitably call me aside and inform me that she knew I knew the answer but she wasn’t going to call on me in class anymore because she needed to “give the other girls a chance,” I became sullen. Discontented and bored, I would doodle through class, wishing the teacher would allow me to speak.
I did not think of myself as better for having read The Little Midrash Says and knowing the answers before my classmates could conceive of them. I have never put much store in factual knowledge, and as far as I was concerned, any of my classmates could read The Little Midrash Says and they would have the answers, too! But there was another problem, something that I could not explain away, and that was the fact that I thought differently from my peers. I didn’t know what it was but there was a distinct difference; we were not interested in the same things, did not, at times, seem to be speaking the same language.
I felt very bad about this and tried very hard to reach out to my classmates and to form friendships with them. But the price of these friendships was often too high. Once, I was invited to join the most popular clique in the school. I was invited to join because of my ability to tell stories. I ditched my other friends, the other outcasts who attached themselves to me, and spent recess with the popular group, weaving them a story. When it came time to go in for mincha, I was horrified to find that they actually had a guard who stood behind us and warded off anyone who tried to follow us or join us with a big stick, actually waving it about and making threatening gestures. As a child who had a very keen sense of right and wrong, this seemed to me to be utterly unjust. I could not associate with this group…
It had been easier when we were younger, when people were still willing to imagine. I had three friends and spent every recess with them. I was almost always the leader in these games of make-believe; I assigned the roles. “You’re going to be the Wicked Stepmother,” I would inform one girl, “and you’re going to be the poor girl looking for berries, and I’m going to be the Queen!” We would play and laugh and run around the green fields and I was happy. But when they grew older we were separated into different classes and grew distant or they wouldn’t engage in such childish activities as make-believe and I was left to myself.
I have always been able to entertain myself, and these recesses proved no different. I would swing and think or sing aloud; I would play my imaginative games and pretend that I was Belle. I cannot count the number of times I must have run about singing, “I want much more than this provincial life” and twirling, only to sink down upon the grass and wish there was a Phillipe to come for me. There was a little tree that I decided was my tree and I would often talk to it and ask it how it was doing, thinking I would make it grow by loving it.
But I felt apart and I knew I was apart and I further knew that it was my fault. And it seemed to me that I had two choices.
Either I could accept that everyone else was much better than me and for reasons I could not understand, I was a failure. I was a failure for being unable to relate to the shallow and pathetic nature of the gossip that ruled our fifth-grade lives, for loving learning instead of hating school, for not being able to run fast enough or hit a baseball far enough afield, for enjoying homework and honestly liking class.
Or I could make myself feel better and tell myself that I was different. I was different and in fact I was higher and maybe even better because I knew more and I thought differently and the things that I cared about mattered more. Because I cared about ideas, as I have always cared about ideas, and I cared about the way they were expressed in books, about the characters who lived their lives in accordance with them.
And as you can guess, I chose the second, because who wants to think of oneself as abnormal, a failure, a freak and an outcast? Far better to think of oneself as above the others, for then one needn’t feel the pain of rejection. No, now you are in control. You can reject them; you don’t need them.
And this is probably when I first began to be the arrogant, haughty and prideful person that I am today.
Despite my resolve that I didn’t need my classmates and I didn’t care whether they accepted me, that in fact I was much smarter and much better than them, I still didn’t like to make them feel bad. I wasn’t ever the kind of person who would pretend not to be good at something so that someone else could feel better; I never downplayed my strengths but I did exaggerate my flaws. I was secretly thrilled whenever I failed something because I hadn’t studied for it; I would dance about happily and inform all my classmates that I’d gotten a 32 on the math homework or a 60 on the pop quiz. I was as proud of this as other people would have been of perfect grades.
Because secretly I hoped that if I told everyone that I got bad grades, too, and that I wasn’t infallible, they would like me better.
Sometimes it even worked. Sometimes people were much nicer to me after I told them I had failed something. It got to the point where I even considered lying to people about my grades to get them to like me, but I did not resort to that because I do not like lies. But there was such pleasure in being accepted and in being seen as a normal kid, in having people take you in as a member of the group that I remember thinking about how much I wanted to sabotage myself and perform poorly deliberately.
To this day, my father insists that my problem with math is entirely a mental block I created for myself and it is possible that that is true. I felt like it wouldn’t be fair to be good at two disciplines, so whenever I received a compliment or an admiring glance I would shrug it off and say, “Oh, I’m good at English, but I’m terrible at Math.” I would then continue on to tell the person all about how I was awful at math because I felt that would put us on a more even footing, that people wouldn’t look at me like some kind of frightening demigod.
There are several kinds of pride. There is irrational pride, where you are proud for absolutely no reason. You weren’t the one who created a project or put together an object; whatever skills you have are completely natural and you didn’t have to put any effort into being a certain way, you simply are. In this case, what do you have to be proud of? It’s a completely irrational pride.
But there is a different kind of pride, and this was the one I felt, where yes, I had been born with certain talents but it was my hard work that led me to develop them and to produce the results I had. And in that case I was proud of myself, and rightly so. I earned my right to be proud.
The problem was that I so desperately wanted a challenge. I wanted someone to emulate, someone to model myself after, someone to look up to, someone who I felt was on my level (yes, these were the terms I thought in, because recall that I had chosen to be arrogant) and most of all, someone who would understand me. And I chose this person after seeing her cry during reciting Tehillim because I was awed by that. This was a girl who felt the recital of Tehillim so much that she actually cried. I idealized her and set her up as my role model. She was officially a tzaddekes now and I was going to learn from her.
I “let her find” a note where I had written how much I wanted to be like her and model myself after her. I had planted it deliberately, of course, but this began a correspondence between the two of us; we would place letters in each others’ lockers and became, for a time, best friends. You will be surprised to note that she completely subscribed to the Agudah philosophy and was very Chareidi. That was the subject of much debate in our letters; she had vehement opinions about non-Jews and my opinions were just as strong, but the opposite of hers. We were well matched because we were both excellent at Judaic studies and for this reason, although I did not know it then, she respected me, too.
But slowly my idealized opinion of her fell apart; there were cracks in the veneer as I realized that she was not who I had thought she was. One of our fiercest arguments was about cheating. She had proudly admitted to cheating during a test. I was shocked. I did not cheat. I did not lie. How could she possibly consider herself to be a good Jew, someone following the precepts of the Torah, and yet cheat? How could she care more about whether my sleeves were rolled up past my elbows because it was hot outside; how could this be so important to her and yet she could cheat on a test?
We had a fight in which she informed me that if “the cheating is really obvious and the teacher doesn’t notice it, it’s her fault.” I couldn’t understand her reasoning and what I saw as her dishonesty and slowly, slowly I couldn’t respect her as much anymore…
Then she received an important award and I really couldn’t live with myself because I was bitterly jealous. Why had she, not only a cheater but someone who was proud of cheating, been rewarded with this award, and I had been passed over? But I steeled myself and pretended I did not care and went up to her and lied by wishing her a mazal tov.
And so my arrogance and pride reasserted itself, for the person I had taken as my role model, the person I had wanted to emulate and model myself after did not exist, for she was not who I had thought she was. We did not share the same values or the same views and I was left to myself, again, and comforted myself by saying that I was the better one even if she was the one with the prize.
You know of my experiences in high school. That was yet another place where I was not challenged and had no one to truly put me in my place, where indeed I knew enough to challenge the teachers and cause them to tell me to shut up lest everyone discover how little they actually knew. And so my arrogance grew because I had again gone unchallenged, and though of course I had friends, other bright people who hated the system, I still felt that I was the strongest, because I was the one who had the ability to put myself on the line and did, far more than they knew. There were times when they did not defend me but I did defend them and this made me feel superior even though my intent was good; I felt like I had a kind of courage that they did not. I realize now that it was not so much courage as natural ability; I am naturally rash, impulsive, spontaneous, reckless and gutsy; more importantly, my parents supported me in my efforts while theirs did not. This is nothing to be proud of though there were times when my defiance was necessary I am certain that had I been less confrontational, I could have accomplished more. But that would have taken a maturity I did not yet possess…
Then came the switch to North Shore and this, if anything, boosted my ego, because how many other kids could pull off that switch? How many other people can stroll into a school that’s entirely different from their former environment, walk into the second trimester after having missed all the material of the first section and then succeed? I did not know of anyone else who could have done that and I was proud of myself for having managed it. I was further proud because I managed to win the respect of my classmates; if I was not liked then at least I was respected. This is because of how well I performed in English…
I met my match in the form of Alita, but even then it was not a complete match. Alita is far more diligent than I; she studies extremely hard and devoted her time and her life to pursuing one goal: her dream of getting into an Ivy League college. I watched her and felt helpless because everything she touched turned to gold; for her, hard work was the key to every door. There was only one way in which I still remained her equal if not her better and that was in English, because Alita, even Alita, would come to me for help on that. And I would outperform her…and so my arrogance was not threatened or truly tested because I could always fall back on the fact that I had at least one subject in which I was still master.
Alita sees people as failing if they admit they have limitations; I do not agree with her. She once discussed another of our friends with me in a disapproving fashion; she was displeased that our friend had moved out of Pre-Calculus and down to Algebra 2. For Alita, such a switch is an impossibility but I can well understand it, because I do not think that everyone must be good at everything and it is possible for someone to exert all the effort in the world in an attempt to understand something and still fail. Of course, I do not know this from personal experience because I cannot say I ever exerted my full effort in an attempt to understand math, and the one time I did I suddenly scored As and A+s, as my father enjoys reminding me.
Alita and I both went to check out the University of Chicago; we sat in on Professor Bevington’s English class. I did not know who he was and even if I had I am not the kind of person to be daunted by stature and so I was thrilled by the discussion and by how knowledgeable the students were; my eyes were on fire. I literally fed off of the ideas they presented and wished so desperately I had a text in front of me. They were studying Dr. Faustus. Simply by listening I was able to determine something, and being the kind of person to jump into a conversation, I raised my hand and Professor Bevington called on me. I advanced my idea and he praised it; I recall that Alita was gaping afterwards and informed me of who this man was; I was rather pleased he had enjoyed my thought and even more pleased that she admired me for my daring.
But what pleased me most were the students in the class. You see, I finally felt at home; everyone in that class deserved to be there; everyone there was a passionate, dedicated person with a love of English who was interested in the material and in learning. I felt like we were all equals and I felt like I was finally going to be challenged, to take pleasure in my learning the way I had always wanted, and it was that joy and understanding that kept me on a high for the rest of the day. That one class had been utterly brilliant; imagine going there for the full school year. There would be no need to see oneself as above others or as arrogant in any way because we would finally be equals; certainly some would know more than me but I would also have ideas they wouldn’t have and we would give and take and fight over the text and it would be pleasure beyond imagining and I would be happy.
But I chose to go to Yeshiva University for the Judaic Studies and I have been well pleased here. It is not, however, the same, and I do not think that is a critique of the university so much as a comment on the core curriculum. You see, students are mandated to take certain classes, whether or not they enjoy them, and because one adds in the religious element and the varying degrees of knowledge even within the Advanced classes, it is difficult to allow for prolonged intellectual debate and discussion. I loved Rabbi Mordechai Cohen’s class but even there people were wary of dealing with the Documentary Hypothesis, even though he was only presenting it as a preface to Rabbi Breur’s ideas, and it is that fear of knowledge that I have always hated, because I am the antithesis of that and would prefer to know, even if it bothers me, even if it hurts or confuses or otherwise bewilders me. And there are times when I so want to discuss topics in class but realize that only a handful of people are going to have any idea what I am on about, so sometimes I shelve my ideas and take them up with the professor later but sometimes I go for them because you see, I am so sick of hearing “for the good of the class.”
“For the good of the class, Chana, I’m not going to call on you…”
“For the good of the class, Chana, I’d like you to ask your questions later…”
“Chana, you don’t understand, your class isn’t as interested as you are in this subject…”
“For the good of the class, Chana, we need to move on now…”
I can’t have it both ways but at the same time that I somehow feel myself to be better and am arrogant, I also feel like I am just the same as my classmates and all of us want to learn and all of us could benefit from learning the truth. I think that this is a lie I have invented for myself in order to try to keep me humble; what I’ve done is say that if I believe that what I do is correct and works for me, then rather than looking down on inferiors, I will pull up all my classmates and place them alongside me. Now that I’ve determined they are all my equals, I should be allowed to ask my questions…for the good of the class.
Because you see, I cannot find a way to simultaneously see my desire for knowledge as being right and yet remain able to see my classmates as my equals. I don’t want to look down on people and I am angry with myself for doing it; I realize that I am haughty, arrogant and prideful but I don’t know how to humble myself and I wish I could find a way that worked. It is a lie, however, to simply dismiss how I feel and say that we are all equals because we often do not connect; again, we are not speaking the same language. So how can I respect all people, even those who seem completely unable to think, and simultaneously respect myself and the values and ideals I believe in? How do I do this, I have been wondering…
And because of this I have asked those people who I respect and heard their answers and will now offer you some of their ideas.
My friend first differentiated between two types of arrogance. There is arrogance “born out of supreme self confidence” and arrogance “as a mask for poor self esteem.” The latter is the one that I would refer to as “a superiority complex to mask one’s inferiority complex.” Unfortunately, the arrogance I possess is the former, the one born out of supreme self confidence.
So how to get beyond oneself? How to humble oneself?
My friend answered me as follows:
- 1. Why would I judge myself against other people? By looking down on someone you are implicitly saying that in a comparison between the two that you are better. I am asking why make that comparison to begin with. You should be judged against yourself (insert classic chasidic story here).
- 2. You know your own shortcomings, even if nobody else does. You know your own flaws and what you need to work on.
3. Recognizing when other people are better then me at something prevents me from ever (hopefully) looking down on other people. (In this case, he’s stating that if you must compare yourself to other people, then recognize what they do better than you and learn from this. Focus on what you are lacking, not on what you have to lord over them.)
On a different occasion, the same friend informed me that one day I will grow into “useful humility.” When I asked how exactly this would be accomplished, he offered his theory.
“You need to run into a brick wall. Then you need to have someone smack you upside the head, followed by running into the brick wall again until you realize it’s not a mirage but actually there. And then when you get over the fact that the wall hurts, you look around and realize that there are more important things to do than keep running and go back and cultivate what you’ve got.”
When I argued that humility doesn’t necessarily come from failure, from being outshone by someone else or being humiliated, he answered, “Humility doesn’t come from humiliation, but can come from recognizing you can’t dominate everyone else all the time.”
I am willing to admit that that is a truth.
Another friend of mine, Rafi, said the same thing in different words: “I think humility can come from within or without. When it comes from without, that's probably better in some ways because it probably means you were put in your place. It hurts more, but it's more valuable in the long run perhaps. Or, it can come from within just by knowing and understanding that a talent, as much as it is to your own credit, is also a gift.”
The latter is the approach my father took with me and the one that I feel helps me the most. He was telling over a dvar Torah he had heard that went as follows:
We learn that Moshe was the humblest of all men, “anav m’kol adam.” But what does it mean, that Moshe was humble? He was certainly not self-effacing; he paints a bold and strong picture throughout the forty years in the desert. He was an extremely talented, adept and able man, a man who was given a task and had to complete it. Do you think that Moshe did not know his talents; is that what humility means? Is humility saying that no, I don’t actually possess these skills and these talents when in truth you do? No! What was it that Moshe thought to himself; what was his definition of humility? Moshe knew that he was the best in certain areas. There was no question of failure; God himself professes that Moses is the greatest prophet and that no prophet will ever arise who can match him. So Moses could not possibly have kept himself humble by thinking that in the future, another would come along who would outdo him (leaving aside for the moment the Rabbi Akiva story, which is related but tangential.)
Here is what Moses thought to himself: If someone else had been given the talents, opportunities and abilities that I have been given, then they too would succeeded at this task and in this position.
Do you see the brilliance in this? I find it quite brilliant. Moses has removed his talents and abilities from revolving around him, about who he is as a person. He sees himself as a vessel. It happens to be that he had a particular background that prepared him for leadership (having been raised in the palace), particular skills and qualities that were granted him. But if someone else had been granted all those skills and opportunities, would they not also have done as well if not better? If they had been the proper vessel rather than him, would they not too have succeeded?
And I was thinking about that in relation to me. If someone else had my parents, my background, my opportunities, was raised in the environment I was raised in, wouldn’t she do just as well if not better? Of course she would. So this means that I am judging people on an unequal basis; I am judging everyone based on what I had and what they were not necessarily given.
Because, and this is something my friend has been telling me for the longest time, people are to a large extent products of their environments. It is not fair and it is not right to judge oneself against people who had an entirely different background, upbringing, religious ideology, who had different opportunities and different family lives. If they had had my life, who knows the limits of what they could have accomplished by now, possibly far more than I have!
It’s a very beautiful idea but it’s hard to keep at the forefront of my mind at the heat of the moment, so I will offer one last suggestion.
I have found that there is an effective way to humble myself, something that always works and never fails.
And that is to look at the suffering of others.
I do not believe that suffering is an ultimate goal but I do believe that suffering is a prerequisite to understanding. I do not wish unhappiness upon anyone and I do not ask God to place difficulties in my path. I do, however, acknowledge that those who have suffered have a unique perspective that is utterly different from my own, completely different and to my mind, on a much higher level.
I look at people who have suffered, whether because I have met them in real life or because I have read of them and their struggles in the books that are so precious to me, and I am humbled.
I am humbled because of what they went through and because of the people they are today, the fact that they were able to carry on and to continue living, to accept a fate that I know I would have hated and would have fought against. Anyone who has suffered and who dreams of a better world, anyone who has been through hell and yet remains passionate; these are people who I look upon in awe, people who I see as being holy.
There is a reason, you see, that I write about Clemantine, Anonymous, the golden-haired girl, Chaya Mitchell and those like them…these are the people who remind me of how low I am in comparison to them, who bring home to me the vast difference between who I am as a person and who they are as people.
For in truth? What have I suffered? I have my health, I have my intelligence, I have my friends, I have my family, I have enough money and enough to eat. What have I to complain about? Absolutely nothing.
And if there is anything that shatters my pride, it is books, books like All Quiet on the Western Front that depict the lives of people my age who went to war and were completely broken, books about the Holocaust, books about any kind of true suffering. Because what I see in those books is another self, a person who is transformed into a killing shell and who forbids himself to feel because that is the only way he can live with himself, a little girl shivering and begging for her mother. I see exactly who I could be in another life and I further see exactly what was for these people, and I am humbled, I am humbled, I am humbled…
And that is why, as those of you who know me well realize, I often try to find out about who you are as people and what it is that moves and affects you and what your experiences have been, because I have yet to meet the person who hasn’t suffered to some degree and whose suffering I cannot respect. And so, if I cannot love you for your opinions and if I see myself as superior due to intelligence, if my arrogance and pride threaten to choke me, if I am so wound up in being condescending and patronizing that I do not even realize you are speaking, there is one thing that will stop me and recall me to myself and that is my ability to understand another’s suffering and to accept it as true.
And to suddenly see you as a person in light of that, and then to try to know you better, because I have been profoundly shocked by that knowledge and realize that above all else you and I are human and we share the same loves and pains and that is what connects me to you even if there is nothing else that can.
I am sorry if I’ve hurt you in my arrogance and pride and I hope that you forgive me.
I hope that one day I will know how to be humble.